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Jerusalem Archaeological Sites: The Northern Gate of Aelia Capitolina

The gate in the northern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, designed to serve those entering the city from the north, was constructed in 1538 during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Known today as the Damascus Gate, it is the largest and most elaborate of all the Old City gates.

Massive architectural remains incorporated into the foundations of the present structure suggested the possibility that it concealed parts of an earlier gate. Indeed, during the 1930s and again in the 1960s, excavations along the outer side of the Damascus Gate exposed the remains of the fortified Crusader gate and, below it, the second century Roman city gate preserved almost intact.

New excavations between 1979 - 1984 enabled scholars to familiarize themselves with this unique gate. It was an impressive city gate with three entrances, protected on both sides by massive towers. Only the eastern entrance has survived in its entirety but it indicates that all the entrances were spanned by arches, while engaged columns on high bases decorated the sides of each entrance.

The walls of the towers were built of large, well-dressed stones with typically Herodian margins. They had, no doubt, been removed from public buildings and from the retaining walls of the Temple Mount, after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman legions. The eastern tower of the Roman gate has survived to a height of 12 m., almost its original height, while the western tower is preserved to a height of 11 m. A flight of steps gives access to the roof of the towers.

The later excavations put an end to the longstanding dispute concerning the date of the gate's construction. It is now clear that the gate was part of Roman Aelia Capitolina built at the beginning of the second century.

After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Tenth Roman Legion was stationed in Jerusalem to watch over the ruins and keep the Jews from returning to live in the city and from visiting the Temple Mount. During his journey to the eastern part of the Roman Empire in the years 130-131, Emperor Hadrian ordered that a pagan colony be established in Jerusalem, to be named Aelia Capitolina. This was the cause of the Jewish (Bar-Kochba) revolt in the years 132-135 CE. The elaborate city gate was undoubtedly built by Hadrian to mark the northern border of the unwalled Roman colony.

Above the eastern entrance to the gate one can still see a fragmentary inscription in Latin, probably in secondary use, which ends ".. by the decree of the decurions of Aelia Capitolina." Another triumphal gate was erected on the eastern side of the city at the time. Its remains are known today as the Ecce Homo arch.

The northern city gate of Roman Jerusalem was in use during the second and third centuries. Its side entrances were blocked during the Byzantine and Early Arab periods, and later the Crusaders built a new, fortified gate at a much higher level, thus unwittingly preserving the remains of the Roman gate below it.

The Roman gate of Aelia Capitolina has been restored and opened to the public; upon descending below the bridge leading to the Ottoman Damascus Gate, one can enter once again through this early gate into the city or climb the original stairs to the walkway along the Old City walls to enjoy the breathtaking view of the Old City and the Temple Mount.

Sources: Israel Foreign Ministry